When Your Plane Drops 20,000 Feet and the Oxygen Masks Come Down

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 28th, 2013

Nomadic Matt in an oxygen mask after the airplane depressurizedLast week, I woke up at 4 a.m. to begin a long journey to Eleuthera, Bahamas for a quick four-day trip. It was going to be a long day on very little sleep. First, Boston to New York, then to Fort Lauderdale before taking my final flight to the Bahamas. I was flying United, my least favorite carrier, but the ticket was free, so I had little choice in the matter.

Shortly after I boarded my plane in New York, the safety briefing began to play. “When the seat belt sign illuminates, you must fasten your seat belt. Insert the metal fittings one into the other and tighten by pulling on the loose end of the strap…In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth…although the bag does not inflate…” and so on. I’ve heard the safety briefing thousands of times, so I tuned it out and tried to sleep.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

I woke up to the sound of my ear drums popping. “What’s going on?” I thought, shifting in my seat and trying to fall back asleep.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

As my ear drums began to sound like popcorn in a microwave, I couldn’t fall back asleep. They were small, frequent pops, and in my zombie-like state, I couldn’t place why this was happening.

I opened my eyes in a haze when it happened.

All of a sudden, the oxygen masks deployed from above. I looked confusedly at the people next to me. And then in the seats around me. There had been no turbulence. Was this a mistake? Half asleep, I didn’t know what to make of it.

All of a sudden, a voice boomed over the PA system. “Put on your masks.”

Holy crap! This was no mistake.

Oxygen masks after the airplane depressurized on a United Airlines flight

I reached for my mask. How did that safety briefing go again? “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will deploy…” I tried to remember in my sleepy state. After all those safety briefings, you realize you’ve become numb to them, tuned them out. Then when an emergency happens, you think, “What the heck do I do again?”

I put on the mask and fumbled to tighten the strings, taking unnecessarily deep breaths, worried that if I didn’t, I’d suffocate. I looked around. The business traveler next to me kept reading the paper. The woman sitting diagonally from me and the couple to my right all looked petrified. In front of me, I could hear a woman telling her kids, “Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you,” over and over again.

As the situation unfolded, I thought to myself that we had probably just lost cabin pressure, and it was nothing to worry about. We hadn’t taken a dive; we hadn’t hit turbulence.

But minutes passed. And then more and more. There were no announcements about what was going on. Of course I wanted the pilots solving problems, not chatting to me, but the dearth of information made those minutes last forever.

Oxygen masks after the airplane depressurizedThen suddenly, we dropped, and we dropped fast. My heart leapt out of my chest. “Maybe there is something really wrong with the plane!” All those fears I have about heights and flying were suddenly realized.

There is nothing scarier than having your plane drop 20,000 feet in seconds. It’s a feeling I never want to experience again in my life.

We soon leveled out, and I later learned that when you lose cabin pressure, you have to drop below 10,000 feet to prevent a loss of consciousness.

Soon, the flight attendants walked casually down the aisle wearing their masks. If you ask any frequent flier, they’ll always tell you that if the flight attendants aren’t scared, you don’t need to be either.

Finally, the captain came on the PA system and explained that, yes, the cabin had lost pressure and, no, there was nothing to worry about, but yes, we would be making an emergency landing.

You always wonder how you’d react in a situation like this. When those masks fall and your plane descends rapidly, will your life flash before your eyes? Will everyone be screaming? Will it be chaos? Will you know what to do?

Surprisingly, none of that happened. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Everyone stayed calm. We were more in a state of confusion than anything else.

Airline passengers taking pictures after the plane depressurized and oxygen masks came down

After we landed, my friends and I laughed and talked about it as we sat in Charleston’s airport drinking beer and waiting for a new flight. “Here’s to our first emergency landing!” we cheered.

Yet as I thought about what had happened, I realized just how helpless we are when that plane door closes. Your life is in the hands of two people you will never see or meet. Anything can happen, and you have no control over it. You simply have to trust that they know what they’re doing.

Events like this hit you with the realization that no matter how well you plan your life, all the control you think you have is an illusion. Life happens without you, and you’re really just along for the ride. It’s moments like this that make you relax and live a little. It’s taken a few days for that notion to settle, in but when you realize you have no control, life gets put in perspective.

Go where life takes you, and enjoy the adventure. Have fun. Do what you love. Be with who you love.

Because one day, you’re 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, the masks come down, and the only thing you can do is say to yourself, “If this is it, I regret nothing.”

P.S. – These photos were taken after I realized I wasn’t going to die. Additionally, I don’t blame United completely. This could have happened on any airline, but when I overheard the captain say that this was the second time this had happened to him in a week, I got uneasy about the standard of United maintenance.

comments 140 Comments

Ele

I am puzzled at the inflatable life vest that is supposed to be under the seat. I mean, of course it is there, but I doubt whether I will manage to retrieve it and put it on the way the flight attendant demonstrates. Just like that joke when they give you whistles to scare sharks in case you crash into the sea-either your whistle will be broken or the shark will be deaf.

Sunny

The whistle is to catch attention of the rescue boats who would be looking for survivors in the event of a crash. They are not there to scare sharks.

Emmas bucket list

Lol! Was going to say the same! Whistles not for sharks! Whoever told you that?!

Also, very important NOT to inflate the life jacket until you EXIT the aircraft as this has actually killed people before. If there is water in the plane and you need to swim out through a door that is partially submerged, or navigate rows of seats that are partially submerged-an inflated life jacket will do its job and force you to float-possibly trapping or hindering you for precious vital seconds.

InAfrica, there was a crash that resulted from a fuel shortage after it was hijacked. People inflating their life jackets too early when the plane glided into the water (like the plane that landed safely on the Hudson) resulted in the aircraft breaking open and many people died in a very survivable crash as a result of having ore inflated their life jackets too early!

That sounds hella scary. I’m glad nothing worse happened, and I hope that pilot can still sleep after twice this, without it being his fault.

I’d like to wish you happy and safe flights for the future ;)

Someone

Just a FYI….there was a Helios Airways Flight 522 where the same thing happened…cabin pressure dropped, mask came down, warning lights came on for the pilots but unlike in the cabin pilots have to retrieve there masks manually and put them on…it doesn’t drop for them…however on this flight the pilots didn’t realize that cabin pressure was dropping due to the number of warning lights and sounds so they passed out before the passengers…and your drop down mask only have about 10 to 12 mins of oxygen after that there is no more until you descend down to 10,000 or less…after 10 mins everyone was basically passed out and it was a ghost aircraft flying by itself…once it got to its destination went into a holding pattern, ran out of fuel, engines flamed out and crashed into a mountain….so all you guys stating that United pilots did a horrible job in fact they did great job and it was necessary to get below 10,000 feet ASAP….if they would have done what the Flight 522 pilots did then this blog post wouldn’t even exist….and yes I am one of those people who has their nose against the window just staring out and getting excited as the flight takes off and lands

Brenda

That’s one of the reasons I hate flying! I mean, I know that many things are beyond our control, but with flying so MUCH of it is. I don’t know or choose the mechanics who work on the plane, I can’t look it over, I have no idea if the pilots (who could be women, btw) are competent, hung over, upset, pissed off, or what. Then there’s being stuffed into an airless tube with hundreds of other people. Yeah, I love flying (heh).

Interesting post and blog – I just found it a few weeks ago (linked from somewhere but I forget where). Thanks,
Brenda

NomadicMatt

I share your same fears but flying is the quickest method to get around the world so I have to live with it.

leila

Hello Matt,
As many of us wondered……..just what did happen. Thank you for your post, and mainly that all involved are safe.
SCARY………………….YES!
and I have over 1k miles

Bobo the Great

Man, I would have pooped my pants if that happened to me.

NomadicMatt

Thankfully neither I or anyone near me did that!

Brad Ryden

Very well written, I dropped once and got off the plane at the next landing, Dakar in the Senegal, and took trains and such for the rest of the trip. Good Information and well presented.

NomadicMatt

Thanks so much for the compliments!

You know, I have these same thoughts when traveling by car, except when traveling by car your life is in the hands of the thousands of other people also occupying the roads. Ultimately we put our lives in the hands of others countless times per day. Must have been a scary experience though! Taking a transatlantic flight on Friday so I hope nothing like this will happen. ;)

I’m glad the plane landed safely and that everyone is OK. I have thoughts simular to Leah on this. They say statistically plane travel is among the safest when compared to the roads. I’m not the most frequent flyer, only 3-4x per year or so. But the feeling of helplessness is the same everytime that plane takes-off and I realize that I have ‘no’ control.

Angela O.

This blog really resonates with me and I’m sure with many other readers out there as well. I have to admit, I’ve been hoping you would share the long version of this story ever since I saw the post about it on Facebook. It is so true that you always wonder what you would do in a situation like that. What a very meaningful experience. Thank you for sharing Matt!

My question is, how did the flight attendants walk down the aisle while wearing the masks? did they have extra long tubing or a portable oxygen mask?

HAHAHA! I thought the exact same thing. I had a vision in my head of them with a scuba-like vest with oxygen tanks attached to their masks as they pushed the beverage cart through the aisles. (Then again, I think I have an overactive imagination.)

NomadicMatt

They have portable o2 tanks and masks with them.

Oh and of course I am glad you are ok! haha

That sounds terrifying. I always get very tense when turbulence takes over, but to suddenly drop like that, I would totally freak out. Thank God you guys landed safely, even if it was for an emergency landing.

Very dramatic! I guess nobody knows how they would react in a situation like this until they are actually in it. Too bad they didn’t inform you about the 10 000 ft drop before they had to do it! Glad you’re ok

NomadicMatt

Yeah, that was the only concerning part because it made me think that something was wrong.

Scary story, but good to know in case it ever happens to me! United is my least favorite to fly internationally as well!

Definitely a scary experience. Once, the planet dropped 1000 feet DRAMATICALLY. It was such a violent drop that the flight attendant fell down. We were told we were in the flight path of another plane and needed to descend immediately. Now THAT was scary!

Never had to put on the oxygen mask though. This might actually freak me out more than my experience though.

Angela O.

I pictured Earth falling 1000 feet until I realized planet is just plane with a t at the end. Ha.

Emma

wow!! i always thing how im going to react when the captain say: brace your self… bt the way… how you got a free ticket?? tips pls!

NomadicMatt

I was on a trip sponsored by the Bahamas.

I still think of this every time I get into a plane, because –knocking on wood here– I’ve never had to face a situation like this before, and hope I never get to. But you’re right: once the door closes, it’s like “what the hell you’re gonna do if this thing blows up in mid-air?”. We always tend to think it’s all gonna be for the best, but if it’s not… we definitely don’t know how to handle it.

Still, few of us realize that we get a hundred thousand times more exposed to risk while driving than by flying. Specially in countries like mine where the rules of the road seem made to be broken, every time. Our daily lives are an actual gamble and we barely notice that fact.

And definitely check in on the flight attendants. They’re trained to deal with this. If they’re not being freaked out, we shouldn’t either.

NomadicMatt

Exactly. They were calm so I was too.

Robyn

The first thing I noticed was the first picture you have in this blog post. The gentleman behind you isn’t wearing his mask and looks like he’s passed out our sleeping. Both scary and a bit funny as the same time.

Glad everything worked out, you landed safely and were able to laugh about it later.

Well, I was thinking this would scare the hell out of me. But, I’ve taken Ecuadorian buses through the Andes, and nothing scares me after that.

Brenda

Oh yeah, even this’d be child’s play compared to that…. ha ha. Bravado, “relaxed” maintenance standards….. and I was in the comparatively safe/luxurious taxis!

NomadicMatt

Touche!

Leonardo Fratini

The last 4 paragraphs should be in a self-help book. How amazing you described how to live the life and regret nothing. It makes some people move on.

Flying home from Portugal, there was so much turbulence that we hit a big bump and the masks came down. We had not lost cabin pressure those, they just sort of got knocked loose.

Glad to hear you’re okay. I bet that was a scary experience!

NomadicMatt

Now that would have REALLY freaked me out!

Matt, thanks for sharing your story and I am glad it all worked out well even through I understand it would have been a very scary experience

I am an aeronautical engineer and work with aircraft and it sounds like the lack of information was due to the pilots going through their checklist – they don’t have time when oxygen is the issue as their highest priority is to preserve the safety of the passengers. You should also understand that they should have rehearsed this scenario many times in a simulator so were competent to handle the situation when it happened.

And everywhere in life we are putting our trust in others – when we drive a car, use a bridge, eat food, take medicine etc – we trust that there is a system/appropriate regulation in place to ensure that what we get will not put us at risk.

NomadicMatt

As I always say, life is risk.

alyson

OK – my friend just sent me your blog because I was the one saying “mommy loves you.” I will say it transpired just as described, and was ridiculously scary. The hardest part for me was that I was traveling with my 2 and 4 year old kids, and my 2 year old little boy WOULD NOT keep the mask on and I was, admittedly, panicking. I just f;ew back today and was way more nervous than I thought I would be. Planning to stock up on some sedatives before my next flight.

NomadicMatt

What row were you in???

Alyson

We were in row 7 a-c. First row behind first class.

NomadicMatt

Yup! That was you! Small world you found this site!

D

Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine. Not having my daughter (who has autism) keep her mask on is my worst fear.

Joyce

LOVE this..!!! “Life happens without you” : gonna be my have quote for a while…!

NomadicMatt

Feel free to steal it!

Whoa! You handled that well! I think I would have been doing some deep breathing too … that happens to me the first couple of minutes I go snorkeling so I’d imagine I’d have to talk myself out of hyperventilating if the masks dropped down in a plane! Glad it all worked out and that you lived to share the story!

Scary stuff. I am more than likely going to be flying United in a couple of weeks. I hope I don’t regret it.

Dude, props for being fairly calm, because I would have shit myself if that happened. I’m not a nervous flier at all; I love to fly actually. But something like that happens ever happens to me, and I’m going to lose. my. mind.

Anyway. Glad you’re safe and sound, and it didn’t disrupt your holiday too much!

NomadicMatt

I hate to fly and this didn’t help at all!

Scary stuff! Situations when you feel like you might die, but you can’t to anything to fight for you life are always scarier. I think that’s why so many people are afraid of flying. You handled the situation well!

I feel a bit short of breath reading this. I fly again in a few weeks and I sincerely hope your story has brought down the odds of it happening to me :).

Seriously though I am glad everyone was ok. We are helpless up there but there are so many parallels on the ground too. A few years ago a friend of a friend was killed when a lump of concrete fell off the top of a building in London… Again, helpless and I still feel a little edgy standing near old buildings (even though that is an irrational thought).

Good luck on the book launch, wish I was in NYC to come for the party!

NomadicMatt

I’ll grab you an o2 mask!

Wow. Incredible post. “I regret nothing, ” is phenomenal. Thanks for sharing.

With love,
Amanda
withlovecoach.com

You handled it a lot better than I would have. I think I would have been panicking quite a bit :s
I’m not afraid of flying at all, I just try not to think about stuff like that happening, and yes your totally right its something we have absolutely no control over so there isn’t any point worrying about it until it happens

Thanks for sharing! Really puts life into perspective! It can happen to any of us and so we must not lose sight of what are important to our lives.

Actually my worst nightmare. You may have temporarily lost control of your life but here’s to the good fortune that that didn’t include your bowels. For that, I congratulate you sir

That is insane! Not sure how I would react….stunned silence with out of control heart beat I am sure!!! Glad to hear the end result was good! Don’t think it will stop me flying…more likely to have a car on the road than in the air, although I am sure living through it is a totally different scene.

NomadicMatt

Pretty much everyone had stunned silence. I was more confused than anything.

Holy cow what an experience! I sincerely, intensely, positively hope that does not happen when we fly to Europe this summer for our mother/daughter trip. My mom is TERRIFIED of flying to begin with – if this happened she might never get on a plane again (even back to the US!).

Good thing we’ll be flying Air Berlin via British Airways. I never did like United for some reason, and this story doesn’t make me any more interested in flying with them again.

NomadicMatt

This could happen on any airline but you’re right, United is generally awful and you shouldn’t fly them.

I had an experience on coming back to the Philippines a couple of months ago. Should have seen the warning signs when the flight was delayed into Hong Kong because of “bad weather”. They were right I was heading back to the Philippines in a Typhoon.

The plane was all over the place dropping and rising with the attendants doing what appeared to be praying while buckled up. On the final approach to the runway it was a bit of a scary moment as it wasn’t the normal approach. It seemed the aircraft had come in low under the storm for whatever reason. Nothing like seeing the plane dropping lower and lower with only sea in view!

But here I am still here! But an experience to remember. Looks like you have also had a similar experience. I think ultimately the biggest fear for people is that its out of our control.

NomadicMatt

Wow! That’s a scary situation. Glad you made it!

Louise

Im from the Philippines and yes iexperienced that too. No turbulence, no warning signs,good thing i buckled my belt. After 30mins the plane dropped just the way you explained it, kids were crying and u can tell through the passengers faces that they were terrified. But thank god we landed safe and sound. Thanks for sharing your experiencematt;)))

Steve

Does anyone know if I can buy Matts book in Vancouver in print?

NomadicMatt

Yes, you can. It comes out Feb 5th.

Wow, it sounds so scary.I hope never experience anything like this!!! Can’t even emagine what would I do in this situation.

scared me just reading your post. :p reminded me of the series Lost. not enough to scare me (or any of us) to stop travelling though! nonetheless, that’s definitely one experience for the books.

NomadicMatt

I’m glad it was NOTHING like the plane crash in Lost, though I’d love get to the island and say hello to Jacob!

Holy crap! This would scare me senseless! To think it’s now happened to somebody I know of is going to make me feel a little wibbly on my next flight :/ Thank goodness you survived to tell the tale!

NomadicMatt

Yeah, it was a little nerve racking getting on a plane only a few hours later.

Ive had a significant drop from turbulance, it was the tummy rush you get from falling quickly. But never had the masks deploy.

Good on everyone for not panicing! But humbling eh?

mike

but would helped if the pilot preannounced he was going to drop fast before it, esp with him doing it the wk before.

Superbly put! Love the pics

Wow… seriously Matt, I would have freaked out like big time. I’m not scared of flying, but seriously panic the moment I feel turbulence. I don’t know if I would have been able to stay as calm as you if the Oxygen Mask dropped. Glad you are okay though. It’s crazy though how we end up reacting in crazy situations.

NomadicMatt

You really have no choice but to stay calm! You’re more in a state of confusion than anything else.

Brilliant post – my heart was in my mouth the whole time I was reading! The only thing that was distracting me while I was reading was wondering if while the couple was looking petrified and while the man was reading his paper and the mother was reassuring her children, if you were taking photos for your blog! So pleased you answered that in the post script! Stay safe and happy travels :)

NomadicMatt

Glad to keep you in suspense!

Holy smokes, this is a fantastic article. It’s great to know no one was really freaking out though–I’ve definitely been on flights that only bumped down the runway on landing, and people shrieked the whole time. Awesome pictures and great advice!

Joey

I am a flight attendant. It is so easy for people to get blasé about safety when flying – for example, when we secure the cabin for take off and landing and a passenger grumbles and refuses to do or put away certain things we’re asking them to. But this just highlights the fact that although air travel IS SAFE, an emergency can occur at any time! We don’t do anything just for the sake of it, there is a very valid reason behind everything we ask of customers. The same with the safety demonstration- maybe you have flown a thousand times, but different airlines and different aircraft have different procedures, you sit in different places, circumstances are different. It is always wise to watch and listen, and to read the safety card so that it is fresh in your mind!

At my airline (not United), we are rigorously trained and tested of safety and emergency procedures so that we are confident and calm should a situation arise. Sometimes I think passengers don’t realize just how much our job entails – we are so much more than a ‘glorified waitress’.

A terrifying experience I am sure, I am glad nobody was hurt and hope it doesn’t discourage you from flying. Inspirational last few paragraphs – we really do all need to live life to the full.

@Cailin and Melissa – the flight attendants would be on drop down oxygen and belted until the descent was complete, then they woul transfer to portable oxygen bottles on a strap around the body so they can attend to the passengers.

Thanks for taking me inside your terrifying reality in such rolicking style. Only you. FYI: your life could also be in the hands of TWO WOMEN (or one woman and one man) when you board that plane too. I’ll chalk it up to PTSD.

NomadicMatt

I was using the gender neutral version like in “hey guys” :)

I would have been TERRIFIED!!! Probably would have cried.

Sammi

i totally forgot that you don’t like flying, like me. i’m not sure how i would have reacted, i’m not actually sure i would have gotten on another aircraft that day, or week actually. also it freaks me out more that the guy behind you in that picture doesn’t have his mask on (unless everyone else had taken them off already?)

NomadicMatt

The photos were taken after we were allowed to take the masks off. I wasn’t going to be Instagramming during an emergency!

Hey Matt,

Your experience is really nerve-wracking. I was reading it like I was there in the plane holding on to my seat and trying not to expect the worse. This also reminds me of the importance of keeping in mind what the flight attendants are saying to their passengers. It’s good to hear everyone is safe and thank you for the message.

Hollllyyy crap! I honestly would have been freaking out. I fly all the time as well, but for some reason my flying anxiety has gotten exponentially worse recently. Maybe because of all this stuff happening with the Dreamliner you hear in the news, that and every American based airline is flying old ass fleets that have peeling interiors and wood 80’s wood grain cockpits…

NomadicMatt

There hasn’t been a crash in the US in over 4 years. That’s encouraging.

NomadicMatt

Well, this is the worst I ever want it to be.

Diane

Whoa- scary! I think I would’ve had a freakin’ heart attack! Glad you made it safely- hope you enjoyed the rest of the trip!

Laurie

Thanks Matt, I have to fly United in a couple weeks. CAN’T WAIT. haha.

Oh my goodness! So glad you’re alive! We all love your blog entries and *need you*. That was a very interesting and terrifying read.

I don’t even want to think of how scary this can be!
But at the same time I know it could happen anytime, flying so often. Well at least if it ever happens to me, I will remember about your post and think I’ll be ok too:)
Now seriously, I’m sorry you had to go through this. Good to know you’re ok and you enjoyed your stay in Bahamas!

Yikes, Matt!

On one of my the grim reaper must be after me flights, I knew there must be big trouble when the drink service stopped and a deathly silence came over the people looking out the windows on the right side . . .

We’re still here though!

Cynthia Dial

As a travel journalist I fly many, many miles each year and have often wondered if I would know what to do if the oxygen masks dropped. Like you, I’ve heard the directions so frequently, it’s become white noise. Thanks for the inside scoop.

Paige Hales Gordo

Wow, what an exceptional article. I was taking tiny gulps of air as I read and I felt like I was sitting right beside you on the plane. Sorry you had to go through that awfulness! You are so spot on about the door closes and its all out of our control. That’s the hardest part. I jump a little inside every time I hear the door slam. Stay safe and keep writing!

Michelle

Glad you are safe and sound to share with us your very scary experience. I shared your words of wisdom with others I thought might gain insight. They know every time I fly I count the number of rows in front and behind me to the exit row…

zarzuelazen

I guess if one is a frequent flyer, sheer statistics means you’re going to encounter an incident on a plane at some point in your life.

Stick to Emirates, their A380s are like flying fortresses…so smooth and secure. Stay away from new designs that haven’t chalked up much flying time (the plastic ‘Dreamliners’ for instance, who in the heck would fly in a plane made of plastic?) All planes have design flaws, some are very subtle and don’t show up for quite a while (usually only coming to light when there is a nasty crash).

Any way, here’s the theme tune of my favourite airline….Emirates…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQnbklPShac

Wow, you fly so often I guess it had to happen. Thank goodness there was no general panic. I bet there was a rush to that bar on landing.
It happened in Queensland recently on a Qantas flight from Brisbane to Townsville. The pilot just said we are making an emergency descent and the masks dropped down. No more info. Scarrry. The plane landed safely in Rockhampton.

Very scary and most of us would panic. Thanks for this interesting post. Main thing is keeping alive.

“You always wonder how you would react in a situation like this.” As you said, it is out of your control. I agree with making the most of now. If I ever plummet to my end from 35,000 feet, I want to say, ‘I regret nothing.’

I think I would have started to cry. I sometimes get panick attacks during regular turbulence. I don’t want to imagine how nervous I will get in a situation like this. So glad to see everything went well and that you arrived safe at your destination.

Tina

I am the same way – I would have died of fright

zarzuelazen

This YouTube clip shows a reconstruction of the last moments of doomed flight 427, taken almost word-for-word from the black-box flight recorder (the only change is where the co-pilot says ‘shoot’….where in reality he was using a somewhat different word). It shows the sheer terror of a sudden unexpected dive. It also illustrates how very subtle design flaws with planes can remain hidden for quite a while before suddenly manifesting themselves in a horrific fashion…in this case the 737 turned out to have an extremely subtle design flaw with its rudder control system.

PS. This clip is extremely graphic and upsetting. Watch with caution.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Py-7B0J9JnE

Jeanne M

I was on four flights last weekend and was pleased to have 3 different females in the cockpit. You might be suprised and find you owe your life to two women you never see. Just a thought. Glad you are ok.

SilkaKT

Thanks Jeanne M for your point, while I wholeheartedly agree with.

I read the blog, which my friend passed on to me, with some interest, but the kind of casual sexism, the unthinking assumption that your life ‘is in the hands of two men you will never see’ drove me insane. Matt, I feel sorry for your sad, unthinkingly sexist arse. You may well be one of many of us that have travelled widely but you don’t seem to have noticed the female bus drivers in Cambodia, the women doctors in India, the fisherwomen in Hondurus… or else it might have occurred to you that it is entirely possible for your plane to be piloted by a women.

The whole time reading the post I was wondering “who thinks about taking photos at a time like that?!” haha. I’m glad everything ended up being ok. You’ve taken how many flights? I’d say your safety record had been pretty good up until then.

Safe Travels.

Ryan

Great article, appreciate that you didn’t use it as an opportunity for sensationalism. The pilot’s have a checklist for everything to ensure nothing is omitted. The checklist for a cabin depressurisation involves getting your own mask on first, then action the rest of the checklist; which is relatively short. At 30,000 there is enough atmospheric pressure to allow for approximately 1-1.5 minutes of useful consciousness, depending on age/health/fitness. Hence the oxygen mask priority and rapid descent. The pilot’s have regular checks on their proficiency at not only flying ability but also dealing with emergencies. So they risk losing their jobs every 6 months even after the large financial and time commitments required to get sit in the front seat of an airliner. There are also yearly medical tests that have to be undertaken.

As far as turbulence goes, it is the aerial equivalent of a small pothole. When a 747 is structurally capable of performing some aerobatics, including a barrel roll, a bit of turbulence is hardly an issue.

And in regard to sexism claims. Whilst there are an increasing number of female pilots (some of whom are better than their male colleagues), it is still a predominantly male industry (6% female commercial pilots). And none of the ones I’ve met have any objections to “the 2 guys up the front”.

Keep up the great writing Matt.

This is my worst fear realized. Except thank goodness you guys are all alive! I would have definitely panicked and been hysterical. I am so inspired by the post, live without any regrets…you never quite know your time.

Great post! A similar thing happened to me on a flight to Madrid from Philly. About 30 minutes after takeoff the plane started shaking, then took a nose dive drop. Some oxygen masks dropped but not all, everyone was visibly scared and wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the pilot announced that we had lost two of our three air pressurization units and the plane had to quickly descend to a safer altitude and that we were returning to Philly to make an emergency landing. It was scary. I’ll never forget the couple sitting in the row next to me. When the plane started dropping and the oxygen masks fell, after putting them on they embraced in a warm hug and held hands until we were safely on the ground. I’ll never forget that flight.

Great post Matt. I had a similar experience recently. I was white water rafting in Queenstown, New Zealand. We listened to the safety briefings intently “knowing” that we wouldn’t need them. However, when our boat capsized, I forgot to hold my breath and try not to panic – I guess there was nothing to worry about as the crew were trained but for a fleeting moment all hell broke loose. I admit to being scared for a few minutes as I watched my daughter “prople” off downstream.

Sounds pretty scary! Glad everything turned out ok.

Eeek, I feel nauseous reading this! I’ve managed over the years to calm myself down in flights enough to not get sick but any amount of turbulence and usually the drop in altitude ruins me all over again! Yuck! I sure would be happy to see the. No of that flight. :)

Cynthia

“…and the only thing you can do is say to yourself ‘If this is it, I regret nothing.’ ” Amen.

Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest
authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same subjects you discuss and
would really like to have you share some stories/information.
I know my viewers would value your work.
If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.

Wow, after reading this I am so glad that I am living life to the full and have no regrets. As we are flying all over Asia at the moment I better start watching those safety demonstrations again!

Take care,
Paul from globalhelpswap

Ugh. I got nauseous reading this post. I don’t like to fly and while this certainly isn’t my very worst airplane-related nightmare, it ranks right up there. I probably would have been sitting in my seat hyperventilating.

I so share your dislike of United that I’ve given it the dyslexic name “Untied.” :)

I love how you toasted the event afterward. I can see myself in there, making another toast: “Here’s to another blog post.” Thanks for this; it’s nice to hear from someone who’s been through it. Glad you’re OK.

NomadicMatt

Everyone keeps saying “at least you got a blog post out of it!”

Hillrider

I am sure it was scary, and a couple of interesting points.

1) You did not put the mask on when they deployed. Really stupid. If they show up, like told so many times, FIRST put them on, then figure out whether it was necessary or not. You obviously suffered a leisurely partial cabin pressure loss and were rather low, at FL280; at FL400 you have only 15 to 20 seconds of consciousness.

2) The FAs did not do their job. You state that everyone “was in a state of confusion than anything else”; they should have reassured everyone that a rapid descent is a standard depressurization maneuver (you only have so much oxygen in those canisters, so yes, you go down to the breathable air of 10,000 ft. or below as fast as possible).

3) You did not state whether you checked the location of your life jacket and/or whether you pulled it out to have it at the ready. You were over the ocean when all of this took place. Every second counts.

4) You did not state whether you checked the location of the emergency exits, memorizing the number of rows to reach each one (ahead of you and behind you). Every second counts and this knowledge has been proven from past accidents to make the difference between surviving and not.

5) Your descent was a pretty controlled one, yet you reacted with “suddenly, we dropped, and we dropped fast. My heart leapt out of my chest”. According to https://flightaware.com/live/flight/UAL1601/history/20130124/1330Z/KEWR/KFLL/tracklog you went from 28,000 ft at 15:06 to 10,200 at 15:12, or a rate of 3,000 ft per minute, and decelerated too, going from 449 to 337 mph, a very controlled descent. Seems like the businessperson reading the newspaper had the correct reaction.

MaryAnn C

Have you ever been in this situation? I was actually on this plane when it happened. Your mind goes blank. Don’t act like you can predict how you would act if you haven’t experienced it yourself.

Gosh, the worst thing I’ve experienced when flying has been slight turbulance. I can only imagine what dropping 20 000 feet must have felt like. However, you never know the real reasons behind that emergency landing and you will never really find out…

Glad you are safe, anyway! Stuff like that can really shake you up.

BLARG. I can’t help but read stuff like this just to freak myself out. I’m pretty nervous about flying, but a combination of dramamine and not sleeping the night before usually allows me to at least kind of doze off for awhile. (I’ve never drank on a plane, but when I fly to Europe this year it may happen.) Anyway, reading this was good because I’ve always wanted to know what a realistic situation would be like when the masks fall. I understand that it happens from time to time and I like to think that reading about it beforehand will make me less freaked out if it happens to me.

Ouch, scary experience ….Despite the fact I love to travel, I’m always anxious when I need to take a plane (and I’m flying on regular basis ….) , perhaps related to some bad experience I had when our flight hit a typhoon …..I’m always relief and happy when our plane touch the ground safely …

It’s amazing how when we are faced with these situations, either complete panic and chaos can ensue or, as you said you felt, it all just seems to slow down, and get surreal/calm. Sounds scary regardless, and hopefully you, and everyone else on here never has to experience anything like that in the future.

Gretchen

Matt – great article. Glad you’re okay. PS – women fly planes, too.

The worst I ever experienced was the plane dipping low and pulling back up so quickly that I blacked out on a flight to LA from Costa Rica. I can’t imagine not freaking out if the oxygen masks had deployed, though. No thank you. It was also a United flight. Freaking United…

Thanks for sharing this scary experience with us Matt. Even reading it made me feel a bit scared and worried. Glad everyone was safe.

Whoa! Spooky! Thanks for sharing. I’ve always wondered what would happen in this situation, and reading your story helps me feel more empowered for when -and if- if ever happens to me!

Man… I bet that event was super scary, I would probably go into a state of shock if I had been there haha

Just as a note though, I almost drown once while surfing in a Mexican beach and my complete life actually passed before my eyes.

Not only that, I actually kind of “saw” my funeral, stuff like my parents yelling and blaming my uncle for my death (it was a trip I made with my uncle and a couple of friends) a lot of friends crying, me being pulled out from the sea, the newspapers at my local city the next day, it was scary as hell.

It was only then when I actually regained myself and starting fighting again to not drown because I was at a split second of not fighting for my life anymore (I didn’t have more strenght left in me) but well, now here I am and I’m writing this.

But yeah man, that “my life passed before my eyes” shit is 100% REAL, I actually have been through it twice so I guess I’m just lucky. ;-)

Sergio

That’s a scary situation. I’ve never had that happen. Although, I must admit that I have secretly always wanted to use the oxygen masks, without the whole there being actual danger part. Reading will also made me question United’s preventative maintenance procedures…

A school friend of my son’s was on the flight that “landed” in the Hudson and we lost some dear friends on TWA Flight 800. Still, I actually think I feel less anxious in a plane than in a car where you are sometimes literally inches away from a semi and everyone is traveling at over 60 MPH.
Here’s a link to a guest post by the guy who survived the Hudson ordeal – along with everyone else.
http://www.theworldorbust.com/i-flew-i-crashed-i-lived-a-1st-hand-account-from-us-air-flight-1549/

Hey Matt,
I would have to say I really hope that never happens to me! My friend told me about hitting an air pocket on a plane and dropping a few thousand feet but 20,000!! My ears pop driving up a hill, this would blow my head off!

Adam

VLA

Two men? Really? How about two people, pilot and co-pilot, pilots and crew, two strangers, two professionals, two individuals, two faceless people, two unknowns, etc. You get the point. I hope.

Great job right here. We really like this post.

DJ

My husband and I flew on an American flight from LAX to Kauai (our second flight of the day, out of SFO) back in May 2012 ( think). I didn’t notice us drop suddenly, which I was surprised to hear from my husband that he felt it, later on when we talked about it, because I am a nervous flyer. The masks came down and I panicked, but put mine on. I could not stop crying and shaking, I was so scared of what was happening. I thought I would hyperventilate and pass out from my fear and crying with the mask on, but I didn’t. We smelled something that was smoky, and they announced that it was the oxygen tanks, so it’s okay. Since we were over the Pacific ocean, they didn’t instruct us to take out our life vests, but the flight crew put theirs ON, and the sight of them walking the aisles with both the oxygen portable tanks and vests on was really quite unnerving to see. I asked my hubby to pull the shade down, but an attendant told him they HAVE to keep them up so they can see the WATER. I saw the ocean below us, since they told us we came down to 10,000 feet.
Then I saw one of them talking to a man in an exit row, presumably giving him instructions.
They turned the plane around and headed back to LAX. We landed safely about 45 minutes later. We never found out what went wrong, but we left the gate area to get our luggage off the plane, because I made it clear to my husband that I could NOT get on the new flight that they said we can take. We got a hotel room for the night, and rented a car to drive home the next day – which took about 8 or 9 hours. Fun vacation! Oh, and I the pilots were sitting in the front row when we got off the plane, and they looked like they had dodged a bullet or something, you could see the concern on their faces.

AJ

Good to actually hear that ‘in case of emergency’ does mean you might just end up okay. I always thought the moment the masks come down you have a zero chance so this post may have just saved me from sarcasm. Seriously though, it is a really important piece, people should hear from real experience that following procedure saves lives, thanks for sharing!
I shall now and forever take the emergency briefing seriously!
Glad everyone came off that flight safely.

MaryAnn C

Just came across this post… I was on this flight with you. A year later and I still haven’t gotten a plane yet. Reading this brought me right back.

Man it is so scary. 20,000 ft ? It doesnt happen to me but I want to experience it too.

Lenny (I'm a girl btw)

Dang! That must be a fun rush- in a dangerous way. The only turbulence I ever experience is not so big turbulence, but even that, the ladies across my seat kept exclaiming, “Oh my god, oh my god!!” I wasn’t afraid but hearing her so fearful, damn, lemme tell you fear is contagious. Then I thought this could be the end I prayed to God, asking for forgiveness even for all the sin I didn’t do. Lol. Keeping your calm is very important. Which is hard. I hope someday I can experience a drop too- and come out of it alive to tell the story. Awesome post anyway!

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